Shakespearean Comedy Essays

Playing Fast and Loose

The Comedy of Errors opens up a parallel universe of alternative possibilities, where even time itself is put on hold. Kiernan Ryan explains.

Which of Shakespeare’s comedies was the first he penned remains a moot point, but there’s no good reason to dissent from the view that The Comedy of Errors is the most plausible candidate. Even if proof that The Two Gentlemen of Verona or The Taming of the Shrew preceded it were to materialise, its seminal role in the evolution of Shakespearean comedy would remain secure.

The play’s own claim to precedence is inscribed in its title, which is the only title of a comedy by Shakespeare to feature the term ‘comedy’, to which it boldly prefixes the definite article. By billing itself as The Comedy of Errors rather than A Comedy of Errors, the play presents itself as the epitome of a distinctive type of comedy: this, like its successors, will be a comedy not merely of mistakes and confusions, but also of ‘errors’ in the word’s original Latin sense of wandering, straying, transgressing. It will be a comedy in which boundaries are crossed and identities confounded, in which abnormality is the norm and exceptions rule. In this respect, The Comedy of Errors can be seen as the prototype of Shakespeare’s subsequent adventures in the genre, the magician’s hat from which he pulled dazzling permutations of his favourite motifs and devices.

The maze of misconceptions the play creates by conjuring up identical twin masters, both called Antipholus, with identical twin servants, both called Dromio, foreshadows Shakespeare’s preoccupation throughout the comedies with the vulnerability of perception and the fragility of identity. Ephesus furnishes the first in a long series of licensed realms ruled by the logic of dreams, whose inhabitants discover a parallel universe of alternative possibilities. The ruses the play employs to hold the tyranny of clock-time at bay prefigure the outrageous liberties taken with time in the comedies that follow it. The riddling, raillery and preposterous wordplay at which the Dromios excel pave the way for a cavalcade of impertinent clowns and quick-tongued lovers locked in badinage. And the haunting resolutions of the romances are presaged by the poignant reunion of the estranged Antipholus twins with their long-lost mother and father at the close of The Comedy of Errors.

One of the deepest pleasures of Shakespearean comedy is its gift of time we never thought we had. No comedy by Shakespeare is more tightly gripped by the ruthless calibrations of the clock than The Comedy of Errors. The whole absurd imbroglio evolves and unravels within the brief stay of execution granted Egeon, the father of the Antipholus twins, by the Duke of Ephesus. The passing and lifting of the sentence mark the start and close of the play, charging everything that happens in between with an ominous urgency. In this comedy every second counts, and the hours are told at regular intervals as time runs out and the confusions escalate. Yet time after time the plot is put on hold, as the wrong twin master and the wrong twin servant swerve off into a double act that romps with reason and frolics with language, as if they had all the time in the world. By playing fast and loose with sound and sense for the sake of it, these extemporaneous interludes relieve the dialogue of relevance, setting it free to dance, and giving us a foretaste of time delivered from its thraldom to calculation.

They also prepare us for the play’s miraculous finale, in which the nightmare spawned by ‘This sympathizèd one day’s error’ is dispelled at last. Until it is dispelled, however, ‘imaginary wiles’ run riot: identities fuse or dissolve, while adulterous desires and sadistic urges can be indulged with the impunity vouchsafed by comedy. Just as the doubling of meaning through digressive wordplay unshackles time, so the duplicate twins split open a rival reality in which alternative fates are released. The identical twins device allows two different courses, which the same life might take, to coexist. The rootless Antipholus of Syracuse endures a taste of domesticity as master of a bustling household and pillar of the community, oppressively adored by a possessive wife. His Ephesian sibling suffers the converse fate of finding himself an alien in his own domain: locked out of his home, betrayed by his wife and servant, arrested for non-payment of debt, diagnosed as demonically possessed, bound hand and foot, and left to languish ‘in a dark and dankish vault’. At the same time, his Syracusan alter ego fantasizes in his stead about ditching his wife for her sister. Each Antipholus twin supplies a surrogate self for the other, allowing both to metamorphose into someone ‘much, much different from the man he was’. 

The wildly improbable predicament in which the play’s dead ringers are trapped exposes the volatility of the identities and relationships they took for rock-solid realities. It reveals the arbitrariness of having become this person rather than another, dwelling here rather than elsewhere, married to this individual rather than to someone else or no one. Nor does Shakespeare disguise the dark side of this revelation – the terror and violence that can result from straying into a place where ‘everyone knows us, and we know none’, as Antipholus of Syracuse puts it. This being comedy, however, it’s the benign implications of the characters’ estrangement from themselves and their world that prevail. The realization that the way things are is not immutable harbours the prospect of transforming them for the better.

The conclusion of The Comedy of Errors in a moving scene of reunion that embraces everyone gives us an inkling of what such a transformation might look and feel like: ‘After so long grief, such nativity!’ And the last word is given to the reunited Dromio twins, who have been beaten black and blue throughout the play, but who voice in its closing couplet the spirit that pervades Shakespearean comedy from the outset: ‘We came into the world like brother and brother, / And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.’ 

By Kiernan Ryan (2014)

This article originally appeared in the programme for the 2014 production of The Comedy of Errors.

Kiernan Ryan is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, an Emeritus Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford.

He is the author of Shakespeare (3rd edition, 2002), Shakespeare’s Comedies (2009), Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution (2015), the Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of King Lear (2015), and Shakespearean Tragedy, which will be published by Bloomsbury in 2018.

Dispossessed in Ephesus

Elizabethans had reason to fear cases of mistaken identity – the Renaissance self was a fragile thing. Dr Will Tosh explains.

When Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are mistaken for the Ephesian twins by Adriana and Luciana, Dromio is quick to lay the blame on supernatural forces. ‘This is the fairy land,’ he concludes, ‘we talk with goblins, owls, and elves, and sprites.’ Adriana combines apparently clairvoyant powers of deduction – she knows their names – with the capacity to alter reality at will. ‘What, was I married to her in my dream?’ wonders Antipholus. Perhaps it’s holy awe that compels him to ‘entertain the offered fallacy’ and follow his soi-disant wife into her home.

No-one casts any spells in The Comedy of Errors, and the confusions are eventually resolved by entirely human means. Ephesus isn’t an enchanted isle or haunted forest. It’s a bustling commercial metropolis. But the mix-up exerts a peculiar force on the Syracusian visitors. The absolute conviction with which the people of this busy port endow the questing, rootless Antipholus with a home, household and business concerns is enough to make him question his sanity. 

The potential uncanniness of human behaviour was recognised by 16th-century writers. Reflecting on the famous case of imposture in which an ambitious chancer spent three years living as the returned exile Martin Guerre, Michel de Montaigne viewed the achievement as so ‘miraculous and exceeding our own experience’ that he felt the judge in the case had entirely missed the point in executing the imposter for adultery and fraud. The fake Martin had managed to implant himself in the old Martin’s bed, home, kin and community – that, surely, represented a power beyond the comprehension of any magistrate.

In fact, the fake Martin’s ‘magic’ concerned his ability to circumvent the stifling demands of Renaissance social hierarchy. Men and women in early modern Europe drew their sense of self from their position in the pecking order. A man defined himself by the property he owned, the wife whose obedience he commanded and the servants he could boss around. A woman likewise situated herself within the home or business she ran and the household that depended on her for upkeep. Challenge to this strict arrangement had a name – treason, be it petty (a servant killing his master) or high (a subject conspiring against the monarch).

But what happened when a wife, servants and community took their due obligations and gave them to the wrong man? When a group of people turned – as one – to an outsider and granted that person rights to which he wasn't technically entitled? Such unsettling behaviour didn't have a name, but it certainly played havoc with society, as the real Martin Guerre discovered when he returned to find a cuckoo in his family’s nest. Martin understandably preferred to imagine that the imposter had bewitched his wife and friends, but the truth owed more to a subtler form of enchantment. The behaviour of Martin’s dependents and kin had enacted an intriguing form of transformation: by treating the interloper as if he were the real Martin (for reasons known only to themselves) they had to all intents and purposes turned the imposter into a doppelgänger.

So Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse are right to be wary of the goings-on in Ephesus. The eccentric welcome Antipholus receives, greeted by everyone he meets ‘as if I were their well-acquainted friend’ and drawn irresistibly into a whole set of domestic and mercantile relationships, suggests less that he has stumbled upon an unusually affable town, and more that his very identity is under threat from the concerted behaviour of the majority. If Antipholus stays much longer in his current situation, in other words, he might inescapably become Adriana’s husband simply because everyone acts as if he is. As he resolves after one too many unnerving encounters, ‘there’s none but witches do inhabit here, / And therefore ’tis high time that I were hence.’ 

By Dr Will Tosh (2014)

This article originally appeared in the programme for the 2014 production of The Comedy of Errors.

Dr Will Tosh is a Research Fellow and Lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe. 

His books include Male Friendship and Testimonies of Love in Shakespeare’s England (2016), and Playing Indoors: Staging Early Modern Drama in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (forthcoming).

Farce and Satire in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors Essays

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Farce and Satire in The Comedy of Errors

All is not as it seems in The Comedy of Errors. Some have the notion that The Comedy of Errors is a classical and relatively un-Shakespearean play. The plot is, in fact, based largely on Plautus's Menaechmi, a light-hearted comedy in which twins are mistaken for each other. Shakespeare's addition of twin servants is borrowed from Amphitruo, another play by Plautus. Like its classical predecessors, The Comedy of Errors mixes farce and satire and (to a degree) presents us with stock characters.

Besides being based on classical models, is it really fair to call The Comedy of Errors a serious play? I'm not sure it is. Three-quarters of the play is a fast-paced comedy based on…show more content…

What is it, after all, that makes one person different from another? In the case of twins, where everything physical points to identity, how can we tell one person from the other? Some of the characters even begin to doubt their own identity. Dromio of Syracuse says, "I am transformed, master, am not I?", and his master wonders, "Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?/ Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advis'd?/ Known unto these, and to myself disguis'd?" (II.ii.195, 212-14).

The play may also be taken as commenting seriously on the limits of human perception and understanding. Both in the last scene and earlier, the strange happenings raise the questions of magic and madness. Antipholus of Syracuse says he thinks Ephesus may be full of "sorcerers" or "witches" (I.ii.99; IV.iii.11; III.ii.156), and he wonders more than once if he has gone mad. Dromio of Syracuse thinks he is in "fairy land" (II.ii.189). The play reveals the limits of human understanding, not only through the mistakes made throughout the play, but also through the fumbling attempts to account for what is happening in the final scene. The Duke wonders if everyone is "mated, or stark mad" (V.i.282), and Antipholus of Syracuse wonders if he is dreaming (V.i.377). Adriana (wife of the other Antipholus) puts the matter most directly when she says that her husband's presence in two

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